behind the scenes

Paying the Bills

Shooting dramatic and picturesque photos is the reason most of us get into this bizarre hobby, and why a few of us try to make a living at it.  However, unless you're at the absolute peak of your field, the art alone doesn't make ends meet.  Sometimes you just have to pay the bills.  This is not necessarily a bad thing though.  Commercial shoots focus you to refine your technique, and increase your speed.  The faster you can churn through a shoot, the faster you get paid.

For most photographers, the hustle and grind of daily work is made of senior photos, engagements, babies, and the like.  However, since I can (for the moment) afford to be picky on what jobs I take, I don't do any of that.  Most of my business comes from shooting product photography.  Specifically, high end automobiles.  So here's a look at my last shoot, of a Mercedes Benz ML350.

My setup for this type of work is surprisingly basic.  I'd love to shoot with a Chimera Lightbank, but they are staggeringly expensive.  So with a little digital trickery, and a couple hundred dollars, I've got a serviceable setup for exterior shots.  I mount a radio transceiver on the hotshoe of my camera, and then another on each of my speedlights that are mounted off the the sides on stands with umbrellas.  You can either leave the lights static for the shot, or lock the camera down on a tripod, and shoot multiple exposures with differently placed lights.  Once you combine them digitally, you get something like the above image.  Granted, this process takes a bit longer, so it's up to you if it's worth it for every shot.  I tend to use it for my lead image, but not the secondary ones.

My setup for interiors is even more basic.  I leave the ceiling lights on in the studio, and mount a speedlight directly to the camera.  Angle the light away from your surface (especially if it's a piano black surface, like Jaguar likes to use), diffuse it, and you're golden.  Soft light is your friend.  If you really want to be fancy, you can throw a little shallow depth of field in there. But remember at the end of the day, this work is meant to be informative, not evocative.

Even if this isn't the most glamorous work in the world, it's a sure sight better than filling out TPS reports.  Ask any professional artist, and the majority of their work is mundane, but they do it because every so often you get to really cut loose and express yourself.  For every twenty tribal armbands that a tattoo artist has to do, they get one zombie cat.  Or something like that.

The trade off for doing this inventory work is that once I've completed my shot list, I get to play.  So then the 50mm comes out with the polarizing filter, and I get experimental.  Because of the unique arrangement I have with my client, there is no time-frame on completing my shoots.  So if I spend an hour experimenting with lighting angles, so be it.  Granted, that's time I'm effectively not being paid, but I'm learning.  Some people pay for lessons, I lock myself in a room with an M5 and some strobes.  Who has the better plan?